Tales from the road: Three generations and counting

May 4, 2018
Jeff Wilkes isn’t the first Cornwell Tools dealer in his family … or the last.

When Alvin Wilkes started driving a tool truck in 1974, he probably didn’t realize he would be the first of three generations in his family to join the industry. Sixteen years later, in 1990, his son, Jeff, started driving a tool truck of his own. Jeff was then followed by his own son, Cory, 26 years later in 2016. Selling tools certainly seems to run in this family’s blood.

Jeff Wilkes started his career working in sales for Airco Welding Services, but he knew that it wasn’t his true calling.

“[I] always had an interest in the tool business because my father was a tool dealer,” he says.

When he first started driving a tool truck, it was for Snap-On, the same company his father started with. Both father and son eventually left and began driving for Cornwell.

“Back in 1999, [my father] got into Cornwell from Snap-On,” Wilkes says. “They didn’t have hardly any distributors out in this area, so they gave him a rather large territory out in the central part of Pennsylvania, and that kind of enabled us to work together initially.”

“I left Snap-On, moved out here in 2005 and started working with him,” he explains. “I did that for a couple of years. He and I worked together, and then my son came along. My dad retired, and my son picked up [his route].”

Wilkes’ son already had a background in tools -- he did mechanical work as a state inspector -- making him a good fit to be a tool dealer.

“We set him up with a franchise number and got him established that way,” Wilkes says. “The idea is that he’ll be able to buy it. Once he gets established and gets his accounts and all of that in order, we’re pretty sure that everything is going to be a success for him.”

Customers seem to appreciate dealing with the same family throughout the years.

“[My son] deals with customers now that say, ‘I remember dealing with your grandfather,’ so that makes it pretty neat.”

The father and son territories are next to each other in the Altoona, Pennsylvania, area. Wilkes says that their routes are a mixture of rural and city, with a variety of different stops.

“We have ... the Chevrolet and the Ford and the Chrysler dealerships,” he says. “We also have, out in the Altoona area, an Audi dealer. But I do a lot with the (agriculture) business, too ... I have two John Deere dealerships. One is the ag side and one is the constructions side.

“I go into a Freightliner dealership that’s right in Altoona, so I do some [work] with heavy truck. I really like those shops -- they usually have a lot of good customers that understand sometimes it costs a little more to get good products, to get good service.”

When it comes to providing customers with outstanding service, details are crucial.

“Make sure you take care of the little things -- they’re the most important,” Wilkes says. “A branch manager said to me, ‘A customer does not remember the toolbox you sold him last week; he remembers the 3/8” flipper you neglected to order for his ratchet three months ago.’ Don’t forget the little things.”

Undeterred by the challenge of getting his son’s new route started, Wilkes is happy with their successful enterprise.

"He’s helping me and I’m helping him," he says. "The tool business is great, everything is rolling along good and we’re having a lot of fun.”

About the Author

David Brierley | Editor | Fleet Maintenance

David Brierley is the editor of Fleet Maintenance magazine.

Brierley’s education and career have been based in the publishing industry. He is an award-winning writer and comes from a background in automotive, trucking, and heavy equipment. Brierley joined the Endeavor Business Media vehicle repair group in 2017 as managing editor for Fleet Maintenance, PTEN, and Professional Distributor magazines, as well as VehicleServicePros.com. In his current role, he writes for and oversees production of Fleet Maintenance magazine. He has worked in the publishing industry since 2011.

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